Scenes from the Mausoleum: THE MOURNERS’ BENCH

Trinity Rep resident company members Phyllis Kay (Caroline) and Janice Duclos (Wilma) in The Mourners’ Bench, a world premiere by George Brant, directed by Michael Perlman. Now playing at Trinity Repertory Company as part of the Three by Three in Rep. Sets by Michael McGarty, Costumes by William Lane, Lighting by Dan Scully. Photo by Mark Turek.

The Mourner’s Bench by George Brant, Trinity Repertory Company, 3/7/12-5/24/12,

Reviewed by Craig Idlebrook

(Providence, RI) A moment of violence can leave its mark on many, including those who never experienced it.  The Trinity Repertory Company’s production of The Mourner’s Bench bravely tries to examine a traumatic event through three disparate lenses that traverse time and family, but the effort ultimately fails to create a cohesive vision of loss and healing.  Instead, the audience is left with three thought-provoking, sometimes-successful scenes that seem bound together only by scenery.

George Brant’s script throws a curve by starting with the heaviest material first.  An adult brother and sister, Melissa (Angela Brazil) and Bobby (Mauro Hantman), revisit their childhood home, broken apart by a violent act.  Bobby has wallowed in the trauma, while Melissa has made attempts to move on, only to be pulled back in by her brother’s neediness.  The script then lurches back in time to shortly after the violence, when the pair’s aunts, Wilma (Janice Duclos) and Caroline (Phyllis Kay), can only decide what to do with their orphaned niece and nephew after confronting their own sins.  The final act somewhere in time between the first two strikes a curious tone of hope, as an older couple, Sarah (Anne Scurria) and Joe (Timothy Crowe), tries to rehabilitate the energy of the house, but discover they can only do so by sharing their secrets.

Director Michael Perlman wisely gives the scenes the space to unfold.  The production’s best moments are moments of silence, when the weight of the past floods the characters.  But ultimately, the cast is asked to do too much heavy-lifting to keep the play afloat.  In the final scene, for example, Scurria and Crowe must move their characters through the grief of terminal illness, the grief of childlessness, years of built-up resentment, and a fantastical leap of faith all within the space of some twenty minutes.  They try admirably, but the dialogue ultimately lacks credibility.

The play works best when the script asks its actors to cover less ground.  The scene between the two sisters deciding on the fate of the orphans is credible because the characters must confront the details of life simultaneously with the heaviness of the past.   Phyllis Kay excels by establishing her character’s rules for engagement and physical tics strong enough to allow Caroline to be Caroline even as she faces some of the worst moments of her life.  And Janice Duclos infuses a quiet menace to the loser that is Wilma, which makes the shift in fortunes between the two in their scene together almost believable.

Like the rest of the production, the set seems like a good idea, but one that has pieces missing.  Set designer Michael McGarty creates a simple downstairs family room that leaves space for our minds to fill in with unseen violence.  The room is laid out elegantly in a Spartan style, nicely echoing the script’s message that the home’s soul is missing.  However, McGarty errs with an upstairs leading to nowhere and a key wall that wheels clumsily in and out between acts; both serve to distract and dissipate the tension he created with the rest of the set.

Brant’s script is one of three new plays the Trinity Repertory Company is performing in simultaneous runs.  It shows promise, and one hopes he can use this run’s experience to take another pass to tie the strong moments of his script into a fully-realized dramatic arc.

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